Hollywood’s Hidden Star: America’s Public Lands


Have you ever watched your favorite movie or television show and thought, “Hey, that place looks beautiful. I wish I could go there.” Well, you just might have that chance! America’s public lands have been the backdrop for countless movies and television shows.  

Visit public lands across the country to venture to the planets of Vulcan and Endor, explore the land of Jurassic Park and even time travel back to the Wild West. 

So turn off the screen, get off the couch and start exploring some of the nation’s public lands that have starred on the big screen! 

Redwood National Park in California

A bright sun shines through a dense forest of trees and ground covered in green vegetation.
It’s easy to envision dinosaurs roaming through the towering and lush redwood forests like this one. Photo by Cliff LaPlant (www.sharetheexperience.org).

The otherworldly beauty of California’s Redwood National and State Parks has made it a popular location for countless films. Towering redwoods, dense greenery and fern-covered canyons provide the setting for films like E.T., Jurassic Park II and Outbreak. Most famously, the redwoods starred as the Forest Moon of Endor in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, introducing the world to Ewoks. Next time you visit Redwood don’t forget to double check the trees for any stray Ewoks.  

Hoover Dam in Nevada

A bird's eye view of a two-leveled dam. Brown earth surrounds either side of water flowing to the large white Hoover dam.
Standing at 726-feet tall, the Hoover Dam supplies power to three states. Photo from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Hoover Dam in Nevada stands as a towering feat of American ingenuity and strength. In the 1978 film Superman, an alien baby adopts America as his home and emerges as the planet’s greatest superhero. The 2007 film Transformers depicts Americans and alien robots fighting together to save our planet from destruction. In both films, epic fight scenes ensue on the Hoover Dam, but it remains standing thanks to the efforts of the heroes.

Trona Pinnacles Conservation Area in California

The sunset casts a warm yellow glow on rocky pinnacles against a light blue sky
The giant tufa formations make this conservation area look like a different planet. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

The unique geological features of Trona Pinnacles Conservation Area in the California desert have made it the backdrop for numerous films and television shows. Star Trek: The Final Frontier, Planet of the Apes (2001), Battlestar Galactica and Lost in Space all had scenes in the area. Several hundred tufa spires dot the landscape, with some reaching over 100 feet, which give the landscape an alien planet atmosphere. Trona Pinnacles may be the perfect location for a sci-fi adventure.

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area & San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Arizona

A small ranch house stands among dry, brown and grey field with a warm pink and purple sky behind it.
Part of San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area’s abandoned town is covered in the glow of a pink sunset. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

Yeehaw! Arizona’s Las Cienegas and San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Areas have been the sets for American Westerns. For 20 years and 635 episodes, Gunsmoke exposed the American public to the Wild West and to some of America’s most beautiful public lands. John Wayne’s Red River, as well as Clint Eastwood’s Outlaw Josie Wales, were also filmed on these exquisite public lands. 

Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in California

An old black and white photo of the movie set shows people moving a giant monument with lions, four statues of men, and a wall behind them.
Pictured here is part of the original set created for The Ten Commandments, which was hidden under the sand dunes. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services collection.

In 1923, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history in California’s Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge for his epic silent film, The Ten Commandments. After filming, DeMille ordered the entire set be dismantled and secretly buried in the dunes. The “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” still sits in the dunes, and film buffs can visit exhibits of movie artifacts removed from the film’s “Lost City.”

Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming

An orange field with green trees is the base for a hill with a tall rock tower stretching into the white clouded sky.
A foreboding Devils Tower soars above the surrounding grasslands on a misty day. Photo by Troy Corbett (www.sharetheexperience.org).

After an encounter with U.F.O.s, the isolated expanse of western America becomes the obsession of a lineworker in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Through the alien's communication with humans, scientists are pointed toward Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Here, the iconic, looming tower becomes a major plot element and the location of many of the movie’s climactic scenes. After watching this movie, you won’t look at Devils Tower (or mashed potatoes) the same.

Imperial Sand Dunes in California

A golden, man-like robot and a short, blue and white robot stand in sand dunes with a blue sky behind them.
R2-D2 and C-3PO hang out on the Imperial Sand Dunes during filming for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Photo by Bureau of Land Management.

The Imperial Sand Dunes in California are a colossal expanse of dunes in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. This unique landscape is the picture-perfect location for a number of hit films, including Road to Zanzibar, Flight of the Phoenix and even Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Rather than returning to Tunisia where the first one was filmed, Star Wars filmmakers stayed close to home and filmed the Great Pit of Carkoon sequence on the dune sea right in Yuma, California.

Arches National Park in Utah

Orange rock fins stick out into the blue clouded sky
Arches National Park is full of geological wonders, including these towering fins. Photo by Bud Walley (www.sharetheexperience.org).

In Thelma and Louise, the title characters lock a police officer in his patrol car trunk. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a 13-year-old Indy rides on horseback with his Boy Scout troop. What do these two have in common? The answer: they were both filmed in Arches National Park in Utah, where over 2,000 stone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles and massive fins decorate the landscape.  

National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington D.C.

A large white monument stands behind a reflection pool and is surrounded with bright green trees and tons of people walking alongside the pool and monument.
The Lincoln Memorial is a quintessential feature of the National Mall and a classic film location. Photo by David Talley (www.sharetheexperience.org).

The National Mall and Memorial Parks has made a cameo in many movies and television shows. The Lincoln Memorial has provided backdrops for TV shows like West Wing and House of Cards, while some of the monuments on the National Mall were the setting for the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump and the Nicolas Cage masterpiece, National Treasure. Just don’t try to steal the Declaration of Independence when you visit.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah

Water flows through tall orange rock features catching rays of sunshine.
Water from Lake Powell flows peacefully through the desert landscape. Photo by National Park Service.

In the future, highly intelligent apes have taken over the world, and Charlton Heston may be humanity’s only hope. “It’s a mad house!” The 1968 classic Planet of the Apes depicts futuristic Earth with some fantastic shots of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. Scenes from Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend transport visitors to the ape-ruled world.   

Glacier National Park in Montana

A small road runs along the edge of a tree-filled mountain and leads toward tall mountains far away in the blue sky.
Going-to-the-Sun Road offers breathtaking views of Glacier National Park as it winds around the mountains. Photo by Ellen Minette (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Heeeere’s Johnny! Stanley Kubrick is known for his unique cinematography, extensive set designs and evocative use of music. These features were used in his 1980 thriller film, The Shining, which stars Jack Nicholson and his slow descent into madness. While most of the movie takes place in the Overlook Hotel, the opening credits show the expansive beauty of Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in California 

Two photographers in all black point their cameras and tripods toward a tall stretch of rocky brown and grey mountains.
Look familiar? If so, it’s likely because you’ve seen this location in many films throughout the years. Since the 1920s, more than 400 movies have been filmed at the Alabama Hills! Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in California has been the set of so many movies that it actually includes a “Movie Road.” The road allows visitors to walk or drive along the sets of many of their favorite movies. Filmmakers love to use the steep hills, natural arches and windows found throughout the area to evoke far away places, including Afghanistan in Iron Man, the Himalayas in Gunga Din and a Spanish Estate in Gladiator. 

Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in California, Oregon and Washington

Water reflects a row of tall green trees and a white tent with a snow covered mountain peeking through the back surrounded by bright blue sky.
All 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail offer incredible views like this one at Goat Rocks Wilderness. Photo by Ross Murphy (www.sharetheexperience.org).

A film based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild goes through Strayed’s 1,100-mile journey along the trail. After Wild’s release, hikers have started following in Strayed’s footsteps -- taking on the Pacific Crest Trail themselves. Wild was shot on location for 60 percent of the film, giving viewers stunning shots of the iconic PCT. The film took advantage of other incredible sights on public lands, also filming at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

Acadia National Park in Maine

Water crashes up against red stones.A yellow sunset shines on the green trees atop the stone cliff in the background.
Sheer drop-offs, rolling waves and incredible views made Otter Cliff the perfect location to shoot a mystery thriller. Photo by Michael Hill (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Who doesn’t love a mystery thriller full of missing criminals, a remote island and breathtaking vistas? In Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of murderers at a hospital for the criminally insane. His investigation leads him to the breathtaking 110-foot-high Otter Cliff in Maine’s Acadia National Park, where rocky cliffs and crashing waves give viewers a foreboding sense of the isolation of the island.

Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

A small island filled with cars and people sits in a light blue water with a gorgeous blue, yellow, and pink sunset filling the sky.
The sunsets on remote Bonneville Salt Flats, showcasing the broad swath of salt that filmmakers love. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Don’t be salty because you’ve never been here! The massive expanse of flat, plantless land at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah attracts filmmakers of all kinds. They used the barren swath as the setting for Jack Sparrow’s otherworldly exile in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The rugged salt flats have also been the backdrop of movies such as Independence Day, Con Air and Tree of Life. 

Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California

A large white building sits on a island surrounded by water. A tower stands on top of the rocky terrain.
The infamous Alcatraz looms tall on its rock island. Photo by Alison Taggart-Barone, National Park Service.

Notoriously known as the most secure prison of its time, Alcatraz Island experienced a shockwave when three inmates escaped in 1962. The 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz was based on what may have been the only successful escape from this maximum-security prison. Much of the film was actually shot on the decommissioned prison in the San Francisco Bay, which is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. For those looking to experience the infamous prison for themselves, a guided tour comes with a ferry ticket to the island -- just keep your eyes peeled for escapees!

Hole-in-the-Wall and Middle Fork of the Powder River Recreation Areas in Wyoming

A red stand stone wall lines a barren dessert.
The sandstone walls at Hole-in-the-Wall transport you back to the wild west. Photo by Claire Nicholson Taylor, Bureau of Land Management.

Hands up! Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in the 1969 classic Western drama Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The famous outlaw duo is hunted across the West by a special posse and must eventually flee to Bolivia. The film showcases beautiful scenes of the American West at Wyoming’s Hole-in-the-Wall and Middle Fork of the Powder River Recreation Areas -- plus Zion National Park in Utah.

U.S. Department of the Interior Main Building in Washington, D.C.

A large seven story building sits on a busy city street block.
Photo of Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C., established in 1938. Photo by Tim Bergling, Interior.

Break out the waffles because Leslie Knope is coming to Interior! Leslie Knope, the fictional Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks and Rec Department, is a champion of parks and the outdoors. At the end of the series, Knope comes to work for the U.S. Department of the Interior and poses outside on the steps of the Stewart Lee Udall Interior Building. The character’s trip to Washington, D.C., also includes a tour along the National Mall, with Leslie and Andy posing outside the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

Denali National Park in Alaska

A lone caribou runs down a green hill in front of large snow covered mountains against a bright blue sky.
A caribou at Denali National Park. Photo by Daniel A. Leifheit, National Park Service.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild chronicles the true story of Christopher McCandless. After graduating from college, McCandless journeys across the country, finally settling in an abandoned school bus in the Alaska frontier. This film highlights multiple national parks, including Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. If you’re travelling into the wild, make sure to plan ahead, know your limits and research the environment -- staying safe while camping is a must!

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Rock peaks with bands of color sit in the middle of the Grand Canyon. A clouded sky lets in rays of sunshine.
From Rim Trail, hikers can get a breathtaking view of the unique color and erosional forms that make Grand Canyon so remarkable. Photo by W. Tyson Joye, National Park Service.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, Chevy Chase stars as a lovable father trekking his disinterested family cross-country to the fictional Walley World. Along the way, the Griswolds stop at the Grand Canyon but unlike many other films that use the Grand Canyon as a setting, Vacation was actually filmed within Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. The movie also filmed shots in the desert at Death Valley National Park. We hope that your vacation is better than the Griswolds when you visit these two parks!

Get out and see the Interior Department behind the scenes at America’s public lands -- just don’t get in the way of our close up!